Conversations for the Soul is a tandem dialogue project we carried out for the second time at St Ethelburga’s, in spring this year. People of different faiths meet in pairs, choosing their own times and locations, and get to know each others beliefs and practices using interesting stimulus material developed by the University of Sheffield. The project brought together a very diverse group of people, many of whom took great delight in the opportunity to get to know someone of a different faith in a deeper way. Friendships and alliances were formed, many of which will live on in the future. Below are reflections from Ken (a participant) and from Marianne (the project co-ordinator). Photos were kindly taken by Christoph Von Luttitz. If you are interested to know more about the project or would like to find out how to bring it to your community, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ken Woolhouse writes:
CONVERSATIONS FOR THE SOUL – A REFLECTION
Prompted by a personal presentation and a persuasive poster, both given at my local inter-faith group lunch, I felt “triggered” to make this “tandem dialogue” programme my individual Lent project. So I turned up at the “tent of meeting” ready to risk a blind date with a conversation partner, face to face and faith to faith. Diagonally across the circle from me the singing of a soulful chant affirming the warmth of the divine presence with us touched me and drew me to my potential partner. We made eye-contact, crossed to introduce ourselves and straightaway started to taste a sharing of our stories as dialogue partners. Up for continuing we made a commitment to meet for five one-hour lunch sessions at the cathedral refectory close by my partner’s place of work. So a 42 year old Indian Hindu priest and a 72 year old English Christian priest came together weekly to talk and listen to one another over a dish of vegetarian soup and a glass of tap water.
For roughly 30 minutes each way, we owned and attempted to define our religious identities. Confidentially we covered: how we came to our faiths from childhood, from home to ashram, from school to seminary, from novitiate to building site, from the crossroads to choose the less travelled path rather than the path more often travelled by our fellow human beings, and coincidentally as “wanderers” both landing up in Germany for a period; our formation and the seed-beds of our sense of vocation to priesthood; our families, our parents, relationships, marriages and children; ethical issues for us as young men, such as being blamed, being tempted, abused at home and in monastery, victims of anti-social behaviour; our political positions – his Tory, mine Socialist. Our table talk was attentively focussed and intensively pursued. For me, only recently having travelled on a tour of India to Christian Aid projects there, it was felicitously fulfilling to enjoy such a real, in-depth meeting of minds. Initially I loved the idea of such a conversation of the soul, but now I had embraced and been rewarded by the reality. This experience recalled to mind the basic premise of an early ecumenical pioneer, J H Oldham, “real life is meeting”,and the author, E M Forster’s desirous longing to “only connect”.
These brief encounters leave me with a sense of our having been mutual “accompaniers” on a journey. Moving from sharing some tearful tales of sadnesses to radiating momentary jets of joy, little by little we discovered where we were coming from as individuals belonging to different faith communities. It involved us in looking at each other intelligently and sympathetically, as we embodied and worked at making our invisible thoughts, our inner feelings and our theologies accessible. We each had to dig deeply to bring out pearls of wisdom from our inherited treasure chests that have given us impressive hints on how to cope with our barely manageable lives. The essences of our philosophies of life; of what we mean by the elusive word “God”; our explorations into and windows on to the divine in nature, seen in the leaf of a tree, in the beautiful flower that even grows in a dark forest or between the concrete paving stones; our quotations from sacred books and sacred stories; our interpretations of “signs” in life-histories; our experiences of sacred spaces; our seekings out of wise spiritual guides and gurus; our beliefs in life-chances after death – we differed but enriched the process of our exchanges.
On reflection we both seemed to be motivated by our fascination with the possibilities of the divine in life and also for the potential in being humans. Some sort of poetry and chemistry seemed to be at work between us, joining us to the whole human and natural communion given to us by the creator God/gods. In our all-too-human natures a divine glory glowed, a kind of gracious personal favour when God glances his eye upon us, which we both called “grace”. My response is to raise a chant of reverence to the God of gods, the God of many names, and to my “conversation of the soul” partner, my “significant other” as “other”. The attention we were able to devote to one another was almost a miracle, a mini-miracle of inter-faith dialogue for real, in the spirit of a meeting through dialogue of God in Friend and Stranger, a dialogue through which the Stranger can become a Friend.
Ken Woolhouse (participant)
Marianne Zeck writes:
Finding people of diverse faiths to participate engrossed me from the New Year to early March. Visiting interfaith group forums in Tower Hamlets and Lambeth offered enticing glimpses into other Boroughs lives and projects, so as well as gathering participants; I found out about a project for women to plant a garden and share each others cultures culinary delights by growing and cooking food together. Also I saw the warmth between regular attendees of these meetings, the community fabric being woven together via people of different backgrounds cooperating in projects of all kinds. Another joy was revisiting centres such as the Samye Dzong Buddhist Centre to offer Conversations to its members and guests.
Finally twenty four people joined the Conversations project and any `midwifery` anxieties about gathering enough folk dissipated! With all of us having such busy lives, I am full of respect for the time the participants have given to setting up meetings outside the two group meetings in the tent. And St Ethelburgas had wanted to deepen the project this Year and evolve dialogues that allowed more intimacy and reflection between the partners and small groups.
I mentioned midwifery and yet `my babies` now needed a marriage bureau, or in contemporary life a good dating agency approach! Curious people asked me, how are you going to successfully match people who have never met? (The point of Conversations being to set up Tandem dialogues on specific religious topics with a new partner of a different faith perspective). We had one evening to achieve setting up these partnerships, and the refreshment break saw a tingling mingling of diverse folk, who somehow, connected with the right people, forming pairs, triads and small working groups.
The partners were then given the Conversations dialogue material and supported in setting up their first meeting.
After six brief Weeks we convened once again in the Tent. It was during the ash cloud drama Week when I knew many of us were `edgy`. Yet to my delight the group participants spoke of warmth and connection. Of new friendships that would endure well beyond the projects end. How they had crossed cultural barriers and understood the heart of another’s faith. That even meeting in crowded public spaces allowed deep emotion to surface and `the other` became some one of significant meaning.
This quality of deeper connection has continued to be affirmed, in post group messages and discussions. There were minor tricky bits but these are surpassed by the glowing bridges that are, in some cases still being built as some people chose to continue meeting after the last group session.
Something Justine and I cultivated, was what we now term `The Art of Conversation`. The development of deeper attentive listening and reflective attention between people, the opening up of a more receptive inner space for the other, created dialogues that some people said they had previously yearned for.
Based on the groups feedback we now plan to develop Conversations, to streamline the material and broaden the topics as well as tailoring it for different groups. For example; to consider taking Conversations into Sixth Form Colleges, Universities and out into Borough community cohesion projects; and to see if we can continue this deepening and bridge building process with other diverse groups.
Overall I am left with affection for the group, the project and process. I am grateful to St Ethelburgas and particularly Justine Huxley for allowing me as a volunteer, to facilitate Conversations and to continue doing so.
Marianne Zeck (Volunteer Project Co-ordinator)
Onkardeep Singh Khalsa writes:
I was privileged enough to meet Christoph as part of this project. He is a very impressive and wise individual that is involved in many things including multifaithbook.org. I truly enjoyed sharing our experiences and thoughts on a variety of different topics. I was also invited to a lunch by Christoph to his rotary club which was a lovely experience as well. I’m glad I took part in the Conversations project and hope that others had an equally enlightening and enjoyable experience.